Setting in the Works of William Morris

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

initial tudents of fantasy literature credit William Morris with creating the invented world as setting for fantasy fiction. Before him authors tended to use settings — or imagined worlds — drawn from three traditions: (1) the landscape of knights and chivalry found in the medieval romance, (2) the forest populated by elves and sprites in Fairyland (or Faerie), and (3) the exotic mideastern landscape of the Arabian Nights. Thus, George MacDonald builds upon the first two in Phantastes, and George Meredith the last in The Shaving of Shagpat.

Morris, in contrast, creates entire societies, and is hence the direct source of more recent fantasy authors, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Ursula K. LeGuin George R. R. Martin, Ann McCaffrey, and Gene Wolfe. Like John Ruskin, Morris creates prose fantasies permeated by his beliefs about political economics. Although he draws upon both Germanic tribal society, which he believed to be pre-capitalist and democratic, and the age of feudalism and chivalry, Morris also creates entirely new worlds in The Well at the Worlds's End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. In these worlds the yoeman, independent farmer, and craftman serve as the center of society, and when knights and priests appear, they seem almost irrelevant. What do such imagined worlds have to do with Morris's medievalism and socialism?

Morris's earlier works in non-realist fiction, A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere, explictly advocate his political beliefs, with News from Nowhere taking the form of utopian fantasy set in the future. Why do you think Morris turned increasingly to narratives set within imagined cultures? Disillusionment with Marxism and socialism? The need to create personal visions of a better world in a new, less doctrinaire way? Return to his Pre-Raphaelite roots at the close of his life?


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Last modified: 1 June 2004